Taiwan proves that disaster preparedness pays off
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Taiwan proves that disaster preparedness pays off

Rapid response to limit earthquake damage the product of coordination and regular civil-defence drills

Firefighters monitor developments on a computer at a temporary operations base near an area affected by Wednesday’s earthquake, in Hualien, Taiwan. (Photo: Reuters)
Firefighters monitor developments on a computer at a temporary operations base near an area affected by Wednesday’s earthquake, in Hualien, Taiwan. (Photo: Reuters)

HUALIEN, Taiwan - When a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit Taiwan’s scenic and largely rural east coast county of Hualien on Wednesday, local official Chang Tung-yao knew exactly what to do, having experienced a similar temblor six years before.

Within two hours of the quake, which struck just before 8am as people were getting ready for work, Chang said an emergency shelter was arranged at a nearby school where more than 130 residents ended up spending the night.

“Joined-up contact with government departments was key,” Chang, a neighbourhood chief, the lowest level of elected official in Taiwan, told Reuters.

The number of people injured in the quake climbed past 1,000 on Thursday. And while the death toll remained steady at nine, 42 workers on their way to a hotel in a national park were still missing.

Since the 2018 earthquake of magnitude 6.4, in which seven people died, Chang said local authorities have strengthened coordination with government units and non-governmental organisations for disaster response and relief.

This time, county officials and police along with other units who helped evacuate residents in affected areas of downtown Hualien city worked together to clear one of the damaged buildings before it could collapse in any aftershocks.

“Everyone is doing their job. The county government and the local administrative office worked together to minimise the damage as much as possible,” Chang said. (Story continues below)

An injured woman is taken for a medical check-up after being rescued from a remote area following the earthquake in Hualien, Taiwan. (Photo: Reuters)

Lots of experience

Taiwan is no stranger to earthquakes, being located near the junction of two tectonic plates, and many are concentrated along the picturesque, mainly rural and sparsely populated east coast. The region is also a major draw for tourists with its rugged mountains, hot spring resorts and tranquil farms.

More than 100 people were killed in an earthquake in southern Taiwan in 2016, while a 7.3 magnitude quake killed more than 2,000 people in 1999.

That 1999 quake, commonly referred to as the “921 quake” as it hit on Sept 21, was a spur for the government to revise building codes and strengthen disaster management laws.

Sept 21 is now a designated day for Taiwan-wide disaster drills and on this day mock alert messages for disasters such as earthquake and tsunami are sent to people’s mobile phones, and schools around the island stage evacuation drills.

Yet Tai Yun-fa, a structural engineer who runs Taiwan’s Alfa Safe that develops quake-resistant building materials, said that while a tightening of building codes had helped better prepare the island for disaster, some developers were still cutting corners.

“The focus when it comes to development is still the lowest price, so in that case you can’t have the best quality.” (Story continues below)

Tents are seen at a temporary reception centre following the earthquake in Hualien. (Photo: Reuters)

Lessons learned

In Hualien, Donna Wu, deputy director of the county branch of The Mustard Seed Mission, a Christian group, said the response in 2018 had been chaotic and they had learned their lesson.

“Everyone was doing the same thing. Tasks were not coordinated,” she said. “This time, each group has different tasks.”

Taiwan has another compelling reason to ready its response — the potential for attack from China, which has been ramping up military and political pressure to try and force Taiwan’s democratically-elected government to give in to Beijing’s sovereignty claims.

The earthquake alert system, with its piercing alarm sounding on mobile phones, is the same one the government would use to warn of an impending Chinese air raid.

Taiwan holds its Min’an civil defence drills annually, nominally to focus on natural disasters, though last year it also covered how to respond to the aftermath of a Chinese attack as part of those exercises.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs, which only began operating in 2022 and has been leading the charge to ensure the resilience of communication networks, reported largely unaffected networks after the latest quake, especially internet services.

Taiwanese cities and counties have rescuers on stand-by 24 hours a day, ready to respond almost at a moment’s notice to disasters.

Less than an hour after the latest quake struck, for example, the government in the southern city of Kaohsiung had mobilised its rescue teams to go to Hualien and sent them to the nearby air base in Pingtung to be flown in by the air force.

Those teams regularly go to other disaster zones around the world, including Turkey when it was hit by a major quake last year, offering a “soft power” diplomacy for Taiwan whose government has close to no official diplomatic recognition despite its strong democratic credentials.

Sandra Oudkirk, the de facto US ambassador to Taiwan, praised the response in a message to the Taiwanese people carried on Facebook. “Taiwan has demonstrated a successful model of disaster prevention, disaster management, and humanitarian rescue to communities around the world,” she wrote.

Chip giant unscathed

In a related development, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chip manufacturer, resumed work at its construction sites after pausing it for a day for inspections.

The quake had raised fears of disruptions to chip supply as TSMC produces a big share of the most advanced semiconductors, and its customers include Apple and the AI chip leader Nvidia.

TSMC said its initial checks showed that safety systems at its Taiwan-based chip fabs were operating normally. Some fabs were evacuated but all personnel were safe and had returned to their workplace shortly after the quake, it said.

TSMC said its overall tool recovery of its fabrication facilities exceeded 80% as of Thursday. New fabs such as the Fab 18 in Tainan were expected to reach full recovery later in the night.

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